Amazon Wants an Oscar

/ Jan 23, 2015


By Sarah Ullman

Amazon wants an Oscar. I said it. It’s the subtext of every article about Amazon’s feature film slate announcement (12 features a year in the $5-$25 million range). Two Golden Globes were a great start, but Amazon has decided that “prestige” original movies will reel in more Amazon Prime subscriptions, and I don’t think they’re wrong.

Amazon is armed with an enormous amount of customer data (my wish list is 327 items long, how about yours?), so the calculus of popular vs. prestige must be an informed choice. Is there a Venn diagram of popular and prestige? Sure…although Amazon hasn’t revealed ratings numbers for “Transparent” and Netflix declines to discuss numbers on “House of Cards” or “Orange Is the New Black” because it isn’t necessary.

Another way to view their strategy: It is much harder to win an Oscar after you become known for reality television. If you win an Oscar, though, you can pretty much make anything you want.

I imagine that Amazon will choose to pursue certain projects using data about customer subject, writer, and genre preferences. On the other hand, friends inside Amazon’s original content division have said that “Transparent” was really Jill Soloway’s through-and-through and that development executives barely touched the project. Did the data drive the creative risk in this wildly successful instance? Doubtful.

Of course, we must consider Amazon’s previous feature announcement in 2012 that they would produce features from user-submitted screenplays. While material is in development, nothing has been produced from this effort and executives indicated that this new slate would be developed in (somewhat) the old-fashioned way (agents!). As we all know, that is a wildly imprecise process. However, the call for material has the potential to be ignited by some focused data points, i.e., Amazon is looking for small indie character-focused dramas because everyone on Amazon Prime Instant Video watched “Whiplash.”

In addition, most of the news has focused on Amazon’s effort to decrease the window between theatrical and VOD release. Perhaps Amazon can force the issue by controlling the IP and changing content consumption habits with its owned-and-operated movies. Other studios and theater owners would be forced to follow suit if the strategy proves to generate more revenue than a traditional longer window.

Why release in theaters at all? Two reasons, I believe: 1) the “prestige” factor and a desire to be eligible for awards that require a theatrical release and 2) anecdotally, feature film content has more value on a VOD platform if it was once unavailable. Its availability on VOD is “eventized” in a way, because it’s news that you can watch it in your home. However, theaters boycotted the “Crouching Tiger” sequel when Netflix announced it would release the movie day-and-date in theaters and on its platform. A line in the sand, certainly.

Finally, the carrot of creative freedom has paved the way for the impressive slate of writers and directors with whom Amazon is developing TV (is it still TV if it isn’t distributed on a TV? Stay tuned.): Steven Soderbergh, Carlton Cuse, Ridley Scott, and Woody Allen.

What can we assume about Amazon’s new feature film slate based on their announcement and history working with creators? In short, creative freedom must be a given, “prestige” is the intent, auteurs are preferred (but genius new filmmakers are welcome), and consumer data is the advantage.

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Sarah UllmanSarah Ullman (@thesillysully) is a writer and creative consultant focusing on the YouTube ecosystem. She writes a weekly newsletter about the business of YouTube called “The Jungle” (subscribe here) and specializes in helping “traditional media” clients transition to the digital landscape.

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